From where I sit in the federal IT market, it would appear that David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office, has been one of the busiest folks in town. Over the past year, his frequent reports on IT issues, at the request of members of Congress, have skewed heavily toward a theme: how agencies can better ensure the success of their IT projects while minimizing risk, weeding out duplicative investments and avoiding large-scale failures.
Today, the most-talked-about method of achieving such goals is "modular" or "agile" IT development. Last fall, at the annual ACT-IAC Executive Leadership Conference, Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel said of federal IT projects, "Monolithic failure cannot be the norm in government," and that moving to a modular approach would reduce the "risk surface." The idea is for agencies to break up IT projects into smaller pieces, rolling out functionality in cycles, rather than waiting to flip the switch on a (hopefully) finished system after years of development and millions of dollars in investment.
Modular IT development in government isn't a new idea. As recently as 2010, the Office of Management and Budget renewed its emphasis on this approach to IT projects and eventually published contracting guidance to support modular development. Additionally, recent studies indicate that agencies are warming to the practice. In a survey by Market Connections and FierceGovernmentIT, 64 percent of respondents agreed that modular development improves outcomes. Agencies that had adopted modular development for their IT projects reported a 71 percent success rate (compared with a 51 percent success rate at agencies that did not practice modular IT).
Since the Veterans Affairs Department put the brakes on 45 IT projects in 2009 and adopted a more modular development approach, it has been able to successfully deliver new functionality 80 percent of the time. The U.S. Postal Service adopted a modular development strategy in 2010, and by last spring, it had become the agency's default methodology.
Those who have seen the light of modular IT development hail the model for addressing issues that have plagued large IT investment for years, including:
- Poor communication between IT and agency stakeholders about business needs
- Difficulty describing clear project objectives
- Shifting requirements that delay or derail projects and lead to cost overruns
Done correctly, modular IT development, characterized by scheduled deliverables, allows agencies to adjust better on the fly to changes in budget and personnel — two other challenges to IT success. Agencies can identify potential issues earlier, improve the quality of their code and deliver more projects on time and within budget.
Modular development should also lead to modular system components, which agencies can reuse, share as services or improve over time without taking down a much larger system for upgrades. This paradigm fits well with other federal IT initiatives aimed at leveraging technology investments across government.
So really, it's no surprise that modular IT development should catch on. However, it's not a no-brainer: The modular approach takes leadership, resources and a willingness to change. Early indications are that agencies are ready to do what's necessary to improve the application of IT to their missions.